Studies on the Inspired Scriptures and Their Background
Study Number 6—The Christian Greek Text of the Holy Scriptures
The copying of the text of the Greek Scriptures; its transmission in Greek and other languages to this day; the reliability of the modern text.
1. How did the Christian educational program get under way?
THE early Christians were worldwide educators and publishers of the written ‘word of Jehovah.’ They took seriously Jesus’ words just before his ascension: “You will receive power when the holy spirit arrives upon you, and you will be witnesses of me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the most distant part of the earth.” (Isa. 40:8; Acts 1:8) As Jesus had foretold, the first 120 disciples received the holy spirit, with its energizing force. That was on the day of Pentecost 33 C.E. The same day, Peter spearheaded the new educational program by giving a thorough witness, with the result that many heartily embraced the message and about 3,000 more were added to the newly founded Christian congregation.—Acts 2:14-42.
2. What good news was now proclaimed, and of what was this work of witnessing a demonstration?
2 Stirred to action as no other group had been in all history, these disciples of Jesus Christ launched a teaching program that eventually overflowed into every corner of the then known world. (Col. 1:23) Yes, these devoted witnesses of Jehovah were eager to use their feet, walking from house to house, from city to city, and from country to country, declaring “good news of good things.” (Rom. 10:15) This good news told about Christ’s ransom provision, the resurrection hope, and the promised Kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 15:1-3, 20-22, 50; Jas. 2:5) Never before had such a witness concerning things unseen been presented to mankind. It became an “evident demonstration of realities though not beheld,” a display of faith, to the many who now accepted Jehovah as their Sovereign Lord on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice.—Heb. 11:1; Acts 4:24; 1 Tim. 1:14-17.
3. What characterized the Christian ministers of the first century C.E.?
3 These Christian ministers, men and women, were enlightened ministers of God. They could read and write. They were educated in the Holy Scriptures. They were people informed as to world happenings. They were accustomed to travel. They were locustlike in that they permitted no obstacle to hinder their forward movement in spreading the good news. (Acts 2:7-11, 41; Joel 2:7-11, 25) In that first century of the Common Era, they worked among people who were in many ways very much like people in modern times.
4. Under Jehovah’s inspiration and leading, what writing was done in the days of the early Christian congregation?
4 As progressive preachers of “the word of life,” the early Christians made good use of whatever Bible scrolls they could obtain. (Phil. 2:15, 16; 2 Tim. 4:13) Four of them, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were inspired by Jehovah to put “the good news about Jesus Christ” into writing. (Mark 1:1; Matt. 1:1) Some of them, such as Peter, Paul, John, James, and Jude, wrote letters under inspiration. (2 Pet. 3:15, 16) Others became copyists of these inspired communications, which were interchanged with benefit among the multiplying congregations. (Col. 4:16) Further, “the apostles and older men in Jerusalem” made doctrinal decisions under the direction of God’s spirit, and these were recorded for later use. This central governing body also sent out letters of instruction to the far-flung congregations. (Acts 5:29-32; 15:2, 6, 22-29; 16:4) And for this, they had to provide their own mail service.
5. (a) What is a codex? (b) To what extent did the early Christians use the codex, and what were its advantages?
5 In order to expedite the distribution of the Scriptures, as well as provide them in a form convenient for reference, the early Christians soon started to use the codex form of manuscript in place of scrolls. The codex is similar in form to the modern book, in which the leaves may readily be turned in looking up a reference, instead of the considerable unrolling that was often required in the case of a scroll. Moreover, the codex form made it possible to bind canonical writings together, whereas those in scroll form were usually kept in separate rolls. The early Christians were pioneers in the use of the codex. They may even have invented it. While the codex was only slowly adopted by non-Christian writers, the great majority of Christian papyri of the second and third centuries are in codex form.a
6. (a) When was the period of classical Greek, what did it include, and when did Koine, or common Greek, develop? (b) How and to what extent did Koine come into general use?
6 The Medium of Koine (Common Greek). The so-called classical period of the Greek language extended from the ninth century B.C.E. to the fourth century B.C.E. This was the period of the Attic and Ionic dialects. It was during this time, and especially in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., that many Greek dramatists, poets, orators, historians, philosophers, and scientists flourished, of whom Homer, Herodotus, Socrates, Plato, and others became famous. The period from about the fourth century B.C.E. to about the sixth century C.E. was the age of what is known as Koine, or common Greek. Its development was due largely to the military operations of Alexander the Great, whose army was made up of soldiers from all parts of Greece. They spoke different Greek dialects, and as these mingled together, a common dialect, Koine, developed and came into general use. Alexander’s conquest of Egypt, and of Asia as far as India, spread Koine among many peoples, so that it became the international language and remained such for many centuries. The Greek vocabulary of the Septuagint was the current Koine of Alexandria, Egypt, during the third and second centuries B.C.E.
7. (a) How does the Bible testify to the use of Koine in the time of Jesus and his apostles? (b) Why was Koine well suited for communicating God’s Word?
7 In the days of Jesus and his apostles, Koine was the international language of the Roman realm. The Bible itself testifies to this fact. When Jesus was nailed to the stake, it was necessary for the inscription over his head to be posted not only in Hebrew, the language of the Jews, but also in Latin, the official language of the land, and in Greek, which was spoken on the streets of Jerusalem almost as frequently as in Rome, Alexandria, or Athens itself. (John 19:19, 20; Acts 6:1) Acts 9:29 shows that Paul preached the good news in Jerusalem to Jews who spoke the Greek language. Koine was by that time a dynamic, living, well-developed tongue—a language ready at hand and well suited for Jehovah’s lofty purpose in further communicating the divine Word.
THE GREEK TEXT AND ITS TRANSMISSION
8. Why do we now examine the reservoir of Greek Scripture manuscripts?
8 In the preceding study, we learned that Jehovah preserved his waters of truth in a reservoir of written documents—the inspired Hebrew Scriptures. However, what of the Scriptures written down by the apostles and other disciples of Jesus Christ? Have these been preserved for us with like care? An examination of the vast reservoir of manuscripts preserved in Greek, as well as in other languages, shows that they have. As already explained, this part of the Bible canon comprises 27 books. Consider the lines of textual transmission of these 27 books, which show how the original Greek text has been preserved down to this present day.
9. (a) In what language were the Christian Scriptures written? (b) What exception is noted with Matthew?
9 The Fountain of Greek Manuscripts. The 27 canonical books of the Christian Scriptures were written in the common Greek of the day. However, the book of Matthew was apparently written first in Biblical Hebrew, to serve the Jewish people. The fourth-century Bible translator Jerome states this, saying that it was later translated into Greek.b Matthew himself probably made this translation—having been a Roman civil servant, a tax collector, he without doubt knew Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.—Mark 2:14-17.
10. How have the Bible writings come down to us?
10 The other Christian Bible writers, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude, all wrote their documents in Koine, the common, living language that was understood by the Christians and most other people of the first century. The last of the original documents was written by John about 98 C.E. As far as is known, none of these 27 original manuscripts in Koine have survived to this day. However, from this original fountainhead, there have flowed to us copies of the originals, copies of copies, and families of copies, to form a vast reservoir of manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
11. (a) What fund of manuscript copies is available today? (b) How do these contrast with classical works as to quantity and age?
11 A Reservoir of Over 13,000 Manuscripts. A tremendous fund of manuscript copies of all 27 canonical books is available today. Some of these cover extensive portions of Scripture; others are mere fragments. According to one calculation, there are over 5,000 manuscripts in the original Greek. In addition, there are over 8,000 manuscripts in various other languages—a total exceeding 13,000 manuscripts all together. Dating from the 2nd century C.E. to the 16th century C.E., they all help in determining the true, original text. The oldest of these many manuscripts is the papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, known by the number P52, which is dated to the first half of the second century, possibly about 125 C.E.c Thus, this copy was written only a quarter of a century or so after the original. When we consider that for ascertaining the text of most classical authors, only a handful of manuscripts are available, and these are seldom within centuries of the original writings, we can appreciate what a wealth of evidence there is to assist in arriving at an authoritative text of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
12. On what were the first manuscripts written?
12 Papyrus Manuscripts. As with early copies of the Septuagint, the first manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures were written on papyrus, and this continued to be used for Bible manuscripts until about the fourth century C.E. The Bible writers also apparently used papyrus when they sent letters to the Christian congregations.
13. What important papyrus find was made public in the year 1931?
13 Great quantities of papyrus writings have been located in the province of Faiyūm, in Egypt. In the late 19th century, a number of Biblical papyri were brought to light. One of the most important of all modern-day manuscript finds was a discovery made public in 1931. It consisted of parts of 11 codices, containing portions of 8 different books of the inspired Hebrew Scriptures and 15 books of the Christian Greek Scriptures, all in Greek. These papyri range in date of writing from the second century to the fourth century of the Common Era. Much of the Christian Greek Scripture portions of this find are now in the Chester Beatty Collections and are listed as P45, P46, and P47, the symbol “P” standing for “Papyrus.”
14, 15. (a) What are some outstanding papyrus manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures listed in the table on page 313? (b) Indicate how the New World Translation has made use of these manuscripts. (c) What do the early papyrus codices confirm?
14 Papyri of another remarkable collection were published in Geneva, Switzerland, from 1956 to 1961. Known as the Bodmer Papyri, they include early texts of two Gospels (P66 and P75) dating from the early third century C.E. The table preceding this study lists some of the outstanding ancient Bible papyri of the Hebrew and Christian Greek Scriptures. In the last column, there are cited passages in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures where these papyrus manuscripts give support to the renderings made, and this is indicated in the footnotes on those verses.
15 The discoveries of these papyri supply proof that the Bible canon was completed at a very early date. Among the Chester Beatty Papyri, two codices—one binding together parts of the four Gospels and Acts (P45) and another bringing within its covers 9 of the 14 letters of Paul (P46)—show that the inspired Christian Greek Scriptures were assembled shortly after the death of the apostles. Since it would have taken time for these codices to circulate widely and find their way down into Egypt, it is apparent that these Scriptures had been collected into their standard form by the second century, at the latest. Thus, by the end of the second century, there was no question but that the canon of the Christian Greek Scriptures was closed, completing the canon of the entire Bible.
16. (a) What uncial manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures have survived to this day? (b) To what extent have the uncial manuscripts been used in the New World Translation, and why?
16 Vellum and Leather Manuscripts. As we learned in the previous study, the more durable vellum, a fine grade of parchment generally made from calf, lamb, or goat skins, began to be used in place of papyrus in writing manuscripts from about the fourth century C.E. on. Some very important Bible manuscripts in existence today are recorded on vellum. We have already discussed the vellum and leather manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures. The table on page 314 lists some of the outstanding vellum and leather manuscripts for both the Christian Greek and the Hebrew Scriptures. Those listed of the Greek Scriptures were written entirely in capital letters and are referred to as uncials. The New Bible Dictionary reports 274 uncial manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures, and these date from the fourth century C.E. to the tenth century C.E. Then there are the more than 5,000 cursive, or minuscule, manuscripts, made in a running style of writing.d These, also on vellum, were written during the period from the ninth century C.E. to the inception of printing. Because of their early date and general accuracy, the uncial manuscripts were extensively used by the New World Bible Translation Committee in making careful renderings from the Greek text. This is indicated in the table “Some Leading Vellum and Leather Manuscripts.”
ERA OF TEXTUAL CRITICISM AND REFINING
17. (a) What two events led to increased study of the Greek text of the Bible? (b) For what work is Erasmus noted? (c) How is a printed master text constructed?
17 Erasmus’ Text. Throughout the long centuries of the Dark Ages, when the Latin language dominated and Western Europe was under the iron control of the Roman Catholic Church, scholarship and learning were at a low ebb. However, with the European invention of printing from movable type in the 15th century and the Reformation of the early 16th century, more freedom prevailed, and there was a rebirth of interest in the Greek language. It was during this early revival of learning that the famous Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus produced his first edition of a master Greek text of the “New Testament.” (Such a printed master text is prepared by carefully comparing a number of manuscripts and using the words most generally agreed upon as original, often including, in an apparatus below, notes about any variant readings in some manuscripts.) This first edition was printed in Basel, Switzerland, in 1516, one year before the Reformation started in Germany. The first edition had many errors, but an improved text was presented in succeeding editions in 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535. Erasmus had only a few late cursive manuscripts available to him for collating and preparing his master text.
18. What did Erasmus’ text make possible, and who made good use of it?
18 Erasmus’ refined Greek text became the basis for better translations into several of the Western European languages. This made possible the production of versions superior to those that had been translated previously from the Latin Vulgate. First to use Erasmus’ text was Martin Luther of Germany, who completed his translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures into German in 1522. In the face of much persecution, William Tyndale of England followed with his English translation from Erasmus’ text, completing this while in exile on the continent of Europe in 1525. Antonio Brucioli of Italy translated Erasmus’ text into Italian in 1530. With the advent of Erasmus’ Greek text, there was now opening up an era of textual criticism. Textual criticism is the method used for reconstruction and restoration of the original Bible text.
19. What is the history of the division of the Bible into chapters and verses, and what has this made possible?
19 Division Into Chapters and Verses. Robert Estienne, or Stephanus, was prominent as a printer and editor in the 16th century in Paris. Being an editor, he saw the practical benefit of using a system of chapters and verses for ready reference, and so he introduced this system in his Greek-Latin New Testament in 1551. Verse divisions were first made for the Hebrew Scriptures by the Masoretes, but it was Stephanus’ French Bible of 1553 that first showed the present divisions for the complete Bible. This was followed in subsequent English-language Bibles and made possible the production of Bible concordances such as the one by Alexander Cruden in 1737 and the two exhaustive concordances to the Authorized Version of the English Bible—Robert Young’s, first published in Edinburgh in 1873, and James Strong’s, published in New York in 1894.
20. What was the Textus Receptus, and for what did it become the basis?
20 Textus Receptus. Stephanus also issued several editions of the Greek “New Testament.” These were based mainly on Erasmus’ text, with corrections according to the Complutensian Polyglott of 1522 and 15 late cursive manuscripts of the previous few centuries. Stephanus’ third edition of his Greek text in 1550 became in effect the Textus Receptus (Latin for “received text”) upon which were based other 16th-century English versions and the King James Version of 1611.
21. What refined texts have been produced since the 18th century, and how have they been used?
21 Refined Greek Texts. Later, Greek scholars produced increasingly refined texts. Outstanding was that produced by J. J. Griesbach, who had access to the hundreds of Greek manuscripts that had become available toward the end of the 18th century. The best edition of Griesbach’s entire Greek text was published 1796-1806. His master text was the basis for Sharpe’s English translation in 1840 and is the Greek text printed in The Emphatic Diaglott, first published complete in 1864. Other excellent texts were produced by Konstantin von Tischendorf (1872) and Hermann von Soden (1910), the latter serving as the basis for Moffatt’s English version of 1913.
22. (a) What Greek text has attained wide acceptance? (b) As a basis for what English translations has it been used?
22 Westcott and Hort Text. A Greek master text that has attained wide acceptance is that produced by the Cambridge University scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, in 1881. Proofs of Westcott and Hort’s Greek text were consulted by the British Revision Committee, of which Westcott and Hort were members, for their revision of the “New Testament” of 1881. This master text is the one that was used principally in translating the Christian Greek Scriptures into English in the New World Translation. This text is also the foundation for the following translations into English: The Emphasised Bible, the American Standard Version, An American Translation (Smith-Goodspeed), and the Revised Standard Version.e This last translation also used Nestle’s text.
23. What other texts were used for the New World Translation?
23 Nestle’s Greek text (the 18th edition, 1948) was also used by the New World Bible Translation Committee for the purpose of comparison. The committee also referred to those by Catholic Jesuit scholars José M. Bover (1943) and Augustinus Merk (1948). The United Bible Societies text of 1975 and the Nestle-Aland text of 1979 were consulted to update the footnotes of the 1984 Reference Edition.f
24. To what ancient versions has the New World Translation also referred? What are some examples?
24 Ancient Versions From the Greek. In addition to the Greek manuscripts, there are also available for study today many manuscripts of translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures into other languages. There are about 30 fragments of Old Latin versions and thousands of manuscripts of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. The New World Bible Translation Committee referred to these, as well as to the Coptic, Armenian, and Syriac versions.g
25. Of what special interest are the Hebrew-language versions that are referred to in the New World Translation?
25 From at least the 14th century onward, translations of the Greek Scriptures into the Hebrew language have been produced. These are of interest in that a number of them have made restorations of the divine name into the Christian Scriptures. The New World Translation makes many references to these Hebrew versions under the symbol “J” with a superior number. For details, see the foreword of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—With References, pages 9-10, and appendix 1D, “The Divine Name in the Christian Greek Scriptures.”
TEXTUAL VARIATIONS AND THEIR MEANING
26. How did textual variations and manuscript families arise?
26 Among the more than 13,000 manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures, there are many textual variations. The 5,000 manuscripts in the Greek language alone show many such differences. We can well understand that each copy made from early manuscripts would contain its own distinctive scribal errors. As any one of these early manuscripts was sent to an area for use, these errors would be repeated in the copies in that area and would become characteristic of other manuscripts there. It was in this way that families of similar manuscripts grew up. So are not the thousands of scribal errors to be viewed with alarm? Do they not indicate lack of faithfulness in the transmission of the text? Not at all!
27. What assurance do we have as to the integrity of the Greek text?
27 F. J. A. Hort, who was coproducer of the Westcott and Hort text, writes: “The great bulk of the words of the New Testament stand out above all discriminative processes of criticism, because they are free from variation, and need only to be transcribed. . . . If comparative trivialities . . . are set aside, the words in our opinion still subject to doubt can hardly amount to more than a thousandth part of the whole New Testament.”h
28, 29. (a) What must be our net evaluation of the refined Greek text? (b) What authoritative statement do we have on this?
28 Evaluation of Textual Transmission. What, then, is the net evaluation as to textual integrity and authenticity, after these many centuries of transmission? Not only are there thousands of manuscripts to compare but discoveries of older Bible manuscripts during the past few decades take the Greek text back as far as about the year 125 C.E., just a couple of decades short of the death of the apostle John about 100 C.E. These manuscript evidences provide strong assurance that we now have a dependable Greek text in refined form. Note the evaluation that the former director and librarian of the British Museum, Sir Frederic Kenyon, put on this matter:
29 “The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established. General integrity, however, is one thing, and certainty as to details is another.”i
30. Why can we be confident that the New World Translation is providing for its readers the faithful “saying of Jehovah”?
30 As to the last observation on “certainty as to details,” the quotation in paragraph 27 by Dr. Hort covers this. It is the work of the textual refiners to rectify details, and this they have done to a large degree. For this reason, the Westcott and Hort refined Greek text is generally accepted as one of high excellence. The Christian Greek Scripture portion of the New World Translation, being based on this excellent Greek text, is thus able to give its readers the faithful “saying of Jehovah,” as this has been so wonderfully preserved for us in the Greek reservoir of manuscripts.—1 Pet. 1:24, 25.
31. (a) What have modern discoveries shown as to the text of the Greek Scriptures? (b) How does the chart on page 309 indicate the principal source for the Christian Greek Scripture portion of the New World Translation, and what are some of the secondary sources that were used?
31 Of further interest are the comments of Sir Frederic Kenyon in his book Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, 1962, on page 249: “We must be content to know that the general authenticity of the New Testament text has been remarkably supported by the modern discoveries which have so greatly reduced the interval between the original autographs and our earliest extant manuscripts, and that the differences of reading, interesting as they are, do not affect the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.” As shown on page 309 in the chart, “Sources for the Text of the New World Translation—Christian Greek Scriptures,” all related documents have been drawn on to provide an accurately translated English text. Valuable footnotes back up all these faithful renderings. The New World Bible Translation Committee used the best results of Bible scholarship developed through the centuries in producing its fine translation. What confidence we may have today that the Christian Greek Scriptures, as they are now available to us, do indeed contain “the pattern of healthful words” as written down by the inspired disciples of Jesus Christ. May we keep holding to these precious words in faith and in love!—2 Tim. 1:13.
32. Why has considerable space been devoted here to a discussion of the manuscripts and text of the Holy Scriptures, and with what satisfying result?
32 Both this and the preceding study have been devoted to a discussion of the manuscripts and text of the Holy Scriptures. Why has this been given such exhaustive treatment? The purpose has been to show conclusively that the texts of both the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures are essentially the same as the authentic, original text that Jehovah inspired faithful men of old to record. Those original writings were inspired. The copyists, though skilled, were not inspired. (Ps. 45:1; 2 Pet. 1:20, 21; 3:16) Hence, it has been necessary to sift through the vast reservoir of manuscript copies in order to identify clearly and unmistakably the pure waters of truth as they originally poured forth from the Great Fountainhead, Jehovah. All thanks go to Jehovah for the marvelous gift of his Word, the inspired Bible, and the refreshing Kingdom message that flows forth from its pages!
b See page 176, paragraph 6.
d New Bible Dictionary, second edition, page 1187.
e See the chart “Some Leading Bible Translations in Seven Principal Languages,” on page 322.
f The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures, 1985, pages 8-9.
h The New Testament in the Original Greek, 1974, Vol. I, page 561.
i The Bible and Archaeology, 1940, pages 288-9.